Sunday, June 22, 2014

Rafe Esquith: Real Teacher, Real Inspiration

Several years ago as I was browsing the education section at Barnes and Noble, I came across an intriguing book called Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by a guy named Rafe Esquith. I had no idea who he was but the title intrigued me, so I decided I had to have it. Little did I know that Rafe, as his students call him, would become one of my most inspirational teacher role models.

Rafe teaches in inner-city Los Angeles at a school with a poverty rate above 90%. Most of the students speak a language other than English at home and the area has earned the nickname "The Jungle." Yet none of these things have deterred him from working hard to help his students be successful. He is most known for his student group called the Hobart Shakespeareans. Each year this groups performs a full Shakespeare play and mixes the classic language of Shakespeare with contemporary rock and roll. The result is something truly remarkable and memorable. You can read more about them HERE

Rafe has had tremendous success- the kind of success every teacher dreams about-students who return years after leaving his classroom to thank him for making such an incredible difference in their lives. Despite his success, he is the first to say that his failures have been just as important to his career. He is humble and acknowledges that although he has done lots of things right, he has made mistakes and suffered heart-wrenching failure. 

Rafe is outspoken. He's a straight shooter. He's honest and real and doesn't beat around the bush about any issue. He has won many awards, been recognized all over the world, and could easily be a principal, instructional consultant, or anything else, but he still chooses to teach fifth grade at the same school, in the same room, that he has for the past 31 years. He has no plans of leaving his classroom anytime soon and has plays picked out for his students to perform for the next several years! That is so amazingly admirable to me.

He has written several books during the course of his career. In the books he describes what happens behind the doors of his classroom, room 56, and offers practical advice, tips, and techniques. In order for me to do the books justice, I've included reviews of each book that I found on Amazon. To see each book on Amazon, click the link listed above each book's image.

 Esquith might be the only public school teacher to be honored by both Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama; he is the only school teacher ever to receive the president's National Medal of the Arts. For the past 25 years, Esquith has taught fifth graders at Hobart Elementary in central Los Angeles. Like most progressive educators, Esquith is outraged by the tyranny of testing, the scripting of teaching under "No Child Left Behind" and the overwhelming bureaucratization of the education industry. Still, he's done wonders with the basic curriculum—developing a hands-on arts program, a money-management curriculum and a sports-based statistics unit. Esquith and his Hobart Shakespeareans are world famous for the rock opera they create every year. Throughout each school day, Esquith teaches life skills: how to think about problems, how to plan a strategy to solve them and, most important, how to work together and be nice to each other. While his goals are inspiring, he's also practical—most chapters include affordable, how-to directions for a variety of his most effective classroom activities; he's even got a few tips for revamping those inescapable "test prep" sessions. (from Publisher's Weekly)

What's a Los Angeles middle-school teacher to do when charged with a bunch of fifth and sixth graders, none of whom speak English at home and most of whom are eligible for free lunches? If you're Esquith, you have them read Twain, perform Shakespeare, play classical guitar and study algebra. You take them camping and to concerts and the theater. How do you manage to do that? If you're Esquith, your school day doesn't run from the usual 8 to 3, but from 6:30 to 5, and you're available on Saturdays and during recess, lunch and vacation time as well. You take on extra jobs and go into debt to pay for the supplements. "I have never claimed to be rational," says Esquith in this intimate, lively account of his 17-year career at an L.A. public school. Part memoir, part manual, but primarily a call for action, Esquith's book is explicitly directed to parents and "concerned citizens" as well as teachers. Esquith has known "anguish and disheartening failure," but hasn't given up. For him, education's "bad guys" often occupy the district, union or school offices and frequently the classrooms. Despite his struggles, Esquith's account is upbeat, witty and usually good-humored. There's rewarding professional success-college for his former students and honors bestowed on him-and refreshing personal achievement: his own development and transformation as he moves from saving the world to setting limits on himself, even though, of course, "there are no shortcuts. (from Publisher's Weekly)

In his follow-up to Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, elementary school teacher Esquith focuses on financially disadvantaged but scholastically ambitious fifth-graders from Hobart Elementary School, located in the middle of a critically poor Los Angeles neighborhood. Directed primarily at parents, educators and administrators, this volume offers anecdotes and suggestions for inspiring and encouraging each child to live up to his or her tremendous promise. Framed by the story of a Dodgers baseball game to which he brings a small group of students, Esquith notes the values of his students in contrast to many of the adult ticket-holders: punctuality, focus, confidence, selflessness, humility, and others. He then probes the meaning of each value, like the way being on time reflects a belief in control over one's destiny, as well as a sense of responsibility. Celebrating his young students' everyday accomplishments, Esquith outlines the struggles and stakes that face them all, while making teaching (and learning) look easy. (from Publisher's Weekly

This month his latest book, Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: No Retreat, No Surrender!, will be released. I am so excited to read it.

There’s no one teachers trust more to give them classroom advice than Rafe Esquith. After more than thirty years on the job, Esquith still puts in the countless classroom hours familiar to every dedicated educator. But where his New York Times bestseller Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire was food for a teacher’s mind, Real Talk for Real Teachers is food for a teacher’s soul.

Esquith candidly tackles the three stages of life for the career teacher and offers encouragement to see them through the difficult early years, advice on mid-career classroom building, and novel ideas for longtime educators. With his trademark mix of humor, practicality, and boundless compassion, Esquith proves the perfect companion for teachers who need a quick pick-me-up, a long heart-to-heart, or just a momentary reminder that they’re not alone. (from Amazon)

The other night I came across this interview on KPCC Radio's channel on YouTube. Even though it is just an interview, it's one of the most inspirational videos I have seen. Rafe talks openly and honestly about teaching in general and about his own successes and failures. This video a great introduction to him, but for me, it was a breath of fresh air and helped me to remember my purpose as a teacher. 

If you have time (it's a little over an hour long) I highly recommend finding yourself a yummy snack and a quiet comfy spot. You won't want to miss a minute of this interview. 

I often find myself asking, "What would Rafe do?" His passion and dedication inspire me to stay passionate and dedicated even on the most difficult days.

Who are your teacher idols? Who do you turn to for inspiration and guidance? I would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tunes on Tuesday- A Class Favorite!

I want to share an idea with you that my students and I loved this past year!

Nick over at Sweet Rhyme Pure Reason came up with a great idea to incorporate music in the classroom and connect popular songs to academic skills. He calls it Tunes Tuesday.

When I first read about this last summer, I loved it and I knew I wanted to incorporate it in my classroom. I ended up calling it 'Tunes on Tuesday' (I didn't add the 'on' for any reason, it just came out that way when I introduced it to the kids- and it stuck!) and it became an absolute favorite in our classroom.

Each Tuesday I would choose a song for my students and I to listen to and analyze. I started out using songs as a way to practice specific skills, but over the course of the year I started using them more as a general text for us to practice a variety of reading and word study skills with. Poetry is a tested genre in third grade so it worked beautifully!

We would first read the lyrics without listening to the music and look for the same poetic devices we would look for in any other poem.  I gave each student their own copy of the lyrics so they could track their thinking as we went. We would discuss the meaning of the lyrics, point out specific vocabulary words, discuss powerful lines or stanzas, and look for a theme. I usually had some questions or specific things I wanted the students to notice in the text, but those mainly served as conversation starters. It always interested me to see what meaning the students derived from reading the lyrics without the music, especially when it was a popular song they knew the words to but hadn't given much thought to the actual message or meaning. We would then listen to the song and discuss how the music influenced the mood of the piece. I would not allow anyone to sing along with the song while we listened the first time. I wanted the students to really focus on the pace and tone of the music and pay close attention to the words. After some additional discussion and/or clarification, we would listen to the song a second time and I would allow the kids to sing along quietly if they knew the words. The whole process took no more than fifteen minutes.

Below is a list of some of the songs I used. We didn't do a song every week and I didn't save all of them (boo), but I'm sharing the ones that I have. Just click on the title to download the lyrics. They are PDFs and will have my questions on them, but you can at least get an idea of how I used them with my students.

"You'll Be in My Heart" - Phil Collins (Disney's The Jungle Book)
"Wide Awake" - Katy Perry
"When I Was Your Man" - Bruno Mars
"Stand" - Rascal Flatts
"Skin" - Rascal Flatts
"Let it Go" - Disney's Frozen
"Lean On Me" - Glee cast
"I've Got a Dream"- Disney's Tangled
"I'll Make a Man Out of You"- Disney's Mulan
"Concrete Angel"- Martina McBride
"Colors of the Wind" - Disney's Pocahontas

Toward the end of the year I realized what an absolute gold mine Disney songs are! They have great vocabulary and valuable themes and a vast majority of the kids knew them.

Depending on availability and time we would also watch the music video for the song. Doing so allowed my students to further grasp the meaning of a song and provided additional evidence to support the overall message.

My students loved Tunes on Tuesday and it was a wonderful way for me to sneak in some additional practice of our reading skills in a unique and engaging way. I also loved the flexibility of it. I could focus more on vocabulary or word study skills or go deeper and discuss skills like tone and theme. And of course, I LOVE to sing and so did most of my students, so it was always fun to sing along with them that second time around! It is definitely something I am going to tweak and improve and continue to use in the future.

Several other bloggers have shared their ideas for this strategy on Nick's Tunes Tuesday Linky Page so be sure to check that out!!

Hope you are enjoying your summer!!